Donned in all green and equipped with a bullhorn, Hufsa Ahmad makes her presence known at Angel Stadium, site of the annual National Alliance on Mental Illness-Orange County walk.
“There’s no parity between mental health and physical health,” she’s chanted in past events. “What do we say to that?” After a count of three, Ahmad’s green team responds in unison.
Ahmad, an OC native, public speaker, and mental health advocate, first got involved with NAMI-OC’s fundraising walk five years ago. Back then, she strolled alone. But Ahmad got inspired to build a team that counted around 50 people two years ago. Her big green machine will be ready to make a ruckus again for Saturday’s #StrikeOutStigma at the Stadium, all in the name of a good cause.
“NAMI-OC gets about a third of its funds for the year from this walk,” Ahmad tells the Weekly. “In order for them to continue programs that have helped me personally, we need funds. If I count this year, I’ve raised about $25,000 for them.”
The sting of stigma is all too real for Ahmad. Being a Muslim woman, a social worker and standup comedian, she also lives with mental illness. After a rough spell of suicidal episodes in college, Ahmad turned into a mental health advocate earning NAMI’s “Next Step” award for her efforts.
Ahmad started out as a volunteer with the OC chapter of the organization. She then moved on to teaching one of their “Peer to Peer” classes. Following that, Ahmad became a speaker and has given around 50 speeches to local police departments, schools, families and mental health patients in hospitals. The “In Our Own Voice” program helped Ahmad gain the confidence to become a public speaker outside its bounds.
She recently gave a “Relapse is Part of Recovery” TED Talk that bravely delved into her personal story earlier this year in New Jersey.
“Stigma is such a dangerous force,” Ahmad says. “It’s not just discrimination. It actually prevents people from going out and seeking the help that they need. Someone out there is struggling with depression and anxiety but they’re not telling anyone because they don’t want people to know, they don’t want to be judged, and they don’t want to hear stigmatizing things.” Stigma also comes with a financial toll to the economy in the form of lost productivity and unemployment.
Whether well-meaning or dismissive, it all can sound the same.
“Just get over it.”
“Get out of bed.”
To counter all of that, Ahmad’s “Stigma Smash” squad lace up their walking shoes; some even slip on green Hulk hands for fun. “I just like how strong and passionate the Hulk is,” she says. “We’re probably the loudest team throughout the whole thing. I don’t know if it got annoying for other people but we had the time of our lives.” They won the “best costumes” award in 2015 and came in second last year in terms of overall fundraising.
Saturday’s NAMI-OC walk is open to any and all interested in joining the cause. Last year’s event drew about 2,000 people.
“It sends a message,” Ahmad says. “If that many people are in one area walking symbolically to smash the stigma of mental illness, that’s sends a huge message to the world that we’re taking mental health seriously and it’s not something to be ashamed of.”
NAMI Walks Orange County at Angel Stadium, 2000 E Gene Autry Way, Anaheim. Sat., Registration is free and begins at 7 a.m. The walk begins at 9 a.m.